By Lt Gen SR Ghosh (Retd)
“Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy, forget in time that men have died to win them.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
On 21 January, 2022, the Amar Jawan Jyoti or the “Eternal Flame” under the iconic India Gate was “extinguished” forever. It was an emotional moment for many soldiers and veterans as Air Marshal BR Krishna, the Vice Chief of Defence Staff, presided over a solemn military ceremony, preceded by buglers playing “The Last Post” and “Rouse”. The flame from Amar Jawan Jyoti was escorted by contingents of the Army and finally merged with the Eternal Flame within the Amar Chakra at the adjoining National War Memorial (NWM).
THE Amar Jawan Jyoti, the Flame of the Immortal Soldier, was put out 50 years after it was inaugurated by Mrs Indira Gandhi on 26 January 1972. Created after the 1971 Indo-Pak War under the majestic India Gate, the Memorial comprises a reversed rifle with a helmet on the top, a poignant remembrance of the Unknown Soldier who had laid down his life for the Nation. This is complemented by four Urns around it, one of which had a continuously burning flame. Since then, the Rifle, Helmet and Eternal Flame represented the undying spirit of our gallant soldiers, standing in mute remembrance of the immortal souls of all Indian soldiers who “gave their today for the Nation’s tomorrow”.
Over the years, our Rashtrapatis, Pradhan Mantris, Service Chiefs and foreign dignitaries have visited India Gate to lay wreaths and to pay homage at the Amar Jawan Jyoti. It has also become one of the most popular sightseeing, and unfortunately, a merry making and picnic spot, for thousands of visitors from all over India and abroad.
A brilliant political masterstroke
The decision to merge the two flames was, not surprisingly, met with a barrage of criticism from all quarters especially from opposition party leaders, military veterans as also a section of the media and the general populace. However, in a brilliant political masterstroke, the Prime Minister told the Nation that in order to commemorate the memory of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, he would inaugurate at India Gate a statue of this much loved and admired politico-military leader to synchronize with his 125th Birth Anniversary “as a symbol of national gratitude to him”. Notwithstanding the timing or possible political motives of this decision, installation of Netaji’s statue at the remodeled Central Vista was welcomed by all segments of the Nation.
Reverting to the issue of the Eternal Flame, there is absolutely no reason to politicize or criticize the decision to remodel the area around India Gate and to merge the two flames. No sacrilege is being carried out nor is the spirit of the soldier being bruised or insulted.
A pre-Independence constructed India Gate did not represent the sacrifices made by thousands of soldiers during either World War II or thereafter in the many wars that our military fought post-1947. Finally, four decades after it was inaugurated in 1931 by the then Viceroy Lord Irwin, and after many more deaths of Indian soldiers, the Amar Jawan Jyoti was created under India Gate to commemorate the memory of those who had lost their lives during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. However, it needs to be noted that this was a monument and not a National War Memorial (NWM).
It also needs to be remembered that the request by the Armed Forces for a NWM was constantly opposed and stymied for decades on some pretense or the other. There were suggestions from the civilian officialdom that the NWM could be built within the Delhi Cantonment at Dhaula Kuan. That was an obvious non-starter because of the security restrictions on movement of visitors within a military area. The NWM had to be located in a Central area of the Nation’s Capital, just as has been done at Washington DC. The obvious and most suitable place was the Central Vista, and within this, the area behind the India Gate where the statue of King George V had earlier been erected under the well known “Chhatri”. But at every stage, plans for this prestigious national project were stalled by various agencies, including the Ministry of Urban Development and the Chief Minister of Delhi, on frivolous grounds like interference with the ambience and heritage of Lutyens’ Delhi.
National War Memorial
THE National War Memorial finally came into being under the incumbent government. Following up on his election promise, the Prime Minister Modi ensured that the India Gate area was allocated and sufficient funds for the construction of the prestigious new NWM. Inaugurated by the Prime Minister on February 25 2019, our NWM is probably one of the best laid out War Memorials in the world, a hallowed place which truly represents the great sacrifices of our officers and soldiers in combat within and outside our borders.
With the creation of this beautiful new NWM, the earlier monument has simply lost its relevance. The idea to continue with two flames makes little sense especially as India Gate and the Amar Jawan Jyoti were never really a National War Memorial. Thus rightly, India Gate, with the statue of an iconic Indian leader under it, will continue to remain an historical and architectural masterpiece at one end of the Central Vista for visitors to come and admire, but will not be part of the more sombre environment of a War Memorial.
It would be befitting if the sacrifices and gallantry of the Indian military are recognised and honoured across all segments of the country and do not become a platform to generate any avoidable controversies. It is also strongly recommended that all those who had opposed the construction of a War Memorial, and those who still do not appreciate the true value of the Nation’s defenders, visit the hallowed grounds of the NWM and spend two minutes in silent homage to the Fallen Soldier.